Research suggests stars in ads for online gambling hook teens

As much as Roberto Luongo is a hot and cold goaltender, he's also a polarizing force among Vancouver sports fans. But, as P.T. Barnum said, ...

As much as Roberto Luongo is a hot and cold goaltender, he's also a polarizing force among Vancouver sports fans. But, as P.T. Barnum said, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

That would explain why the BC Lottery Corp. (BCLC) hired him just before the 2011-12 season as a celebrity pitchman for PlayNow online poker.

Luongo, a poker aficionado, is free to appear in whatever gambling ads he sees fit. The National Hockey League, in its now-expired collective bargaining agreement, only prevented players from endorsing liquor and tobacco products.

Luongo isn't the biggest shill for online poker in club history. That designation belongs to Mats Sundin, who juggled an endorsement with PokerStars with an unspectacular and brief 2009 comeback with the Canucks. The Swede's main achievement was the top- selling No. 13 jersey in club history.

Despite attempts to keep secret the payments to Luongo, the number "$160,000" appeared next to Luongo's name in the BCLC Statement of Financial Information for the year ended March 31, 2012. That's how much was paid in the first six months of Luongo's deal with BCLC, which was signed September 21, 2011. PlayNow Casino revenue for 2012 was reported as $39,250,000, more than double the $18,452,000 from a year earlier. How much of a factor, if any, the Luongo ads were is not immediately apparent.

Since Cory Schneider became the Canucks' No. 1 netminder last spring, BCLC has stepped up its efforts to wring value out of the endorsement deal in anticipation of Luongo being dealt to a team in an Eastern time zone. The BCLC has an escape clause written into the contract that anticipates a trade. Should the Canucks be stuck with Bobby Lu and his $64 million, 12-year contract, he could also cease to be Mr. PlayNow if he misses three-quarters of the games.

Should BCLC have hired Luongo in the first place? Was it socially responsible for the taxpayer-owned monopoly?

The Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch's 2003-dated "Advertising and Marketing Standards for the B.C. Gambling Industry" includes a section on advertising to minors.

The last section is most relevant. Advertising must not "contain cartoon figures, symbols, role models, and/or celebrity/entertainer endorsers whose primary appeal is to minors."

The key word is "primary," which appears elsewhere in the section twice. The word "primarily" is mentioned thrice.

One can successfully argue that minors cannot afford tickets to see NHL games in person and are too young to watch them in bars, so therefore they're not the "primary" audience. Luongo was seen widely by fans of all ages on games telecast in prime time and his No. 1 jersey is also popular among those under the age of 19, so minors could be considered a secondary audience, and a case can be made that BCLC hired him to groom future online and in-casino gamblers.

Why should you be concerned?

McGill University youth gambling expert Dr. Jeffrey Derevensky's research found 9% of high school students have gambled for money on the Internet, 23% of Internet gamblers are 18 to 24 years old and 28% are problem gamblers.

Internet gambling emulates video games, and advertising often uses themes of glamour and escape. Youths are already playing on the free-to-play "educational" sites, which Derevensky called a "breeding ground" for future players. PlayNow.com is open only to gamblers 19 and up, but the home page is not age-protected.

A 1996 Laval University study found adolescents who gamble excessively are at increased risk for delinquency and crime, the disruption of relationships and impaired academic performance and work activities. In the same year, a University of Calgary study said pathological gamblers reported that they started gambling seriously at nine or 10 years of age. •

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